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Beloved Inuit Leader Kusugak Mourned Across Canada

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The Inuit and their fellow Canadians are mourning a champion of land-claim, linguistic and cultural rights in Jose Kusugak, who died of cancer on Jan. 18 at age 60.

"Inuit lost a giant," said Cathy Towtongie, president of Nunavut Tunngavik, the Inuit land-claims organization, to CBC News. "We've lost a leader that has been committed—from his youth—to the Inuit issues, especially in terms of language. He's going to be missed."

He passed away in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, the Canadian territory he helped create.

By all accounts Kusugak was a tireless advocate of not only rights but also Nunavut culture and language. He helped broker the 1993 deal between the Canadian government and the Inuit that created the territory of Nunavut. He proceeded to serve as president of the organization administering the treaty, Nunavut Tunngavik. In 2010, when then president Paul Kaludjak was ousted for alleged improper spending, Kusugak stepped in again, as interim president. He also served as president of the Inuit national organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

In November 2010 he received the Elijah Menarik Award from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for his advocacy of Inuit languages.

His death brought an outpouring of condolences from fellow chiefs, business leaders and federal officials. A memorial will be held for him in Ottawa on Feb. 2.

“Indigenous peoples mourn the loss of respected Inuit leader Jose Kusugak,” said Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo in a statement.

“The Indigenous peoples of Canada—the First Nations, the Inuit and the Métis—are each distinct and unique, but we share many common values, such as a deep respect for the land and environment and a drive to maintain and strengthen our languages, cultures and ways of life. In all these areas, Jose Kusugak was dedicated to advancing the cause of his people.”

John Duncan, minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, expressed “profound sadness” at Kusugak’s passing.

“Mr. Kusugak used his communications skills throughout his life, as an educator, broadcaster, leader and advocate for Inuit issues,” Duncan said in a statement. “He was instrumental in negotiating the creation of Nunavut with the governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories.”

Moreover, Duncan said, “He promoted education as the key to preserving Inuit culture. Through his work as a cultural and language advisor, Mr. Kusugak contributed to the preservation of the Inuktitut language. As a diabetic and cancer patient, Mr. Kusugak used his experiences to educate Inuit about health issues.”

Indeed, the Nunatsiaq Newsreported, when Kusugak was diagnosed with bladder cancer last year, he used it to urge fellow Inuit to get regular checkups. His influence reached to the business community as well.

“Mr. Kusugak was an ardent defender of Inuit rights and culture and a very proud Canadian. He coined the phrase ‘first Canadians, Canadians first,’ ” said a statement issued by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.

Dene Nation Chief Bill Erasmus recalled having “the opportunity to share ideas and views and collaborate on the issues” on some joint projects.

Kusugak “impressed and inspired everyone with his commitment to indigenous rights and Indigenous peoples, a commitment he demonstrated throughout his life,” Atleo said. “We often say that a victory for indigenous rights is a victory for all of us. In that way, and in many others, Jose Kusugak helped move us all forward.”